Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Three First Inaugural Addresses

JFK gets the hype, given that it's the 50th anniversary, but keep in mind two others:  Reagan's (1981) and FDR's (March 4, 1933).  In Kennedy's call for an aggressive foreign policy we today hear Bush's second inaugural, with all its strengths and shortcomings.  In Reagan and FDR we hear the language of watershed elections, with changes in political vocabulary that persist. 
Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 5 Comments

But in Kennedy's we hear ... Kennedy!

I sort of like what Milton Friedman had to say in response to JFK's inaugural:

The paternalistic "what your country can do for you" implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man's belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, "what you can do for your country" implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus fo the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.

Also, with reference to a recent post pointing out how vehement Democrats were in their denunciations of Reagan, it's worth pointing out that Republicans had little nice to say about JFK when he was in office, either.

John, thanks for posting that statement by Friedman! I may just cut and paste it and share with my students when he read JFK's Inaugural.

I was listening to NPR, which has had numerous commemorations of the death of Sargent Shriver, the architect of the War on Poverty. He defended the War on Poverty against its critics that it failed and created a paternalistic state with the standard, "The Great Society did not spend enough," and the idealistic defense of the Peace Corps. However, he did admit that in terms of the failure of the Peace Corps, "No one is going to get out of poverty unless they want to." I don't think he realized that the same applied to the work ethic of the poor of America and the paternal state. Many did not want to work because the government was paying their salaries, food bills, medical care, etc.

Friedman is full of good sense, but why would his criticism of Kennedy not apply as well to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address?

I like Friedman -- he was the right man for the time. Nonetheless, he suffers from a libertarian delusion that "societies" are just a collection of atomized "utility maximizers." That's always been hogwash. The primary commodity that people have always hungered for is STATUS, and this only society can confer. For this reason, societies are constituted by overlapping (sometimes conflicting) personal and group identities, and politicians will always (rightfully) seek to find a common identity to unite them in common cause and destiny. Just the way it is.

Of course, libertarians generally respond to criticisms such as mine by saying that their critique applies only to the state. There is a strong place for civil society in their schemes, supposedly. But of course they insist that engagement with civil society be voluntary (once again, the atomized utility-maximizer). Again, more hogwash. We are born into civil society, our connections to other people drag us into other connections that we may or may not desire, and actors within civil society will always seek to use the state for their own benefit.

In short, the sharp separation of state and civil society has never existed, nor can it exist. Moreover, people almost never function as isolated utility chasers. Our lives and needs are far more organic than that.

For crying out loud, Bentham has been dead lo' these many years! Whenever I hear Stossel cite Ayn Rand I just cringe.

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